Lifelong farmers and gardeners tend to accept food as a gift, says southern Alberta native, Dr. Norman Wirzba.

Lifelong farmers and gardeners tend to accept food as a gift, says southern Alberta native, Dr. Norman Wirzba.

October 6, 2014

If you want something, grab it and go. Dr. Norman Wirzba said that is modern culture's approach to the world around us, including our attitude toward food.

He learned this concept while growing up on the family farm north of Lethbridge. His mother worked diligently preparing delicious meals. Then everyone would dive in and devour the meal gluttonously.

The youngest in the family with older brothers, Wirzba said eating was a full contact sport in his home.

In direct contrast were the Shakers, a branch of the Quakers, a religious sect founded in 18th century England. Their practice before eating was to observe two minutes of silence. They calmed themselves down and focused not only on the food, but also paid attention to the people around them. They took nothing for granted.

"We are not mindful about what we do and where we are. If we are not attentive of how we act in the world, it communicates something about us," said Wirzba.

"If you sit down at a table and voraciously consume everything that's in front of you, what does that say about you?"

He spoke on The Spirituality of Eating, Sept. 17 at The King's University. His talk was in conjunction with the university's two-day conference, Being Human.

Since becoming professor of theology, ecology and rural living at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., Wirzba's research and teaching interests meet at the intersection of theology, philosophy, ecology, agronomy and environmental studies.

His work focuses on promoting practices that can equip Church communities to be more responsible members of creation. He is the author of Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, and Making Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation.

"When you eat, others have to die. It's so easy to eat meat and forget what has happened to the animal," said Wirzba.

"When you go to a grocery store and buy meat, there are no traces of blood, bone, feather or fur. But you must acknowledge that this was an animal that died so you could eat."

In a strictly consumer conception of eating, one has no grasp of that concept. A person can go to a grocery store, and simply "pluck and purchase" food like any other product.

Growing a backyard garden teaches the fragility of life. Sometimes the tomatoes won't grow. For those growing apples, if there's a late frost, it means no apples that year. Blight, rodents or other pests might spoil a garden.

In Genesis, the first garden story ends badly. Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden because they were unhappy caring for the garden. Instead of being gardeners who nurtured the life that God drew out of the ground, they wanted to secure life on their own terms, reaching for the forbidden fruit that would make them like God.

This same story has been repeated throughout history. Gardening takes energy and devotion, and crops often fail. Many people walk away from their gardens and go in search of an easier, more comfortable life that is not so demanding.

Today, humanity's refusal to take up the gardening task of nurturing life has yielded a harvest of degraded soils, diminishing wetlands, and the erasure of uncountable numbers of plant and animal species.

An important aspect of the spirituality of eating is accepting food as a gift, not a commodity.

"If you don't say Grace before eating, you are basically saying that your food is a commodity, just fuel. The reason we have an environmental crisis is because we think the whole world is a commodity, and the only thing that matters is whether we can get it cheaply and conveniently.

"Once you adopt that attitude, all of the economic practices of exploitation and abuse are justified," said Wirzba.


Lifelong farmers and gardeners tend to accept food as a gift because they realize the vulnerability of a harvest. There is a degree of powerlessness and loss of control over the end result. Uncontrollable circumstances, like weather conditions and pests, can sabotage an otherwise bountiful harvest.

Dr. Norman Wirzba

Dr. Norman Wirzba

"We like the idea that we can purchase our food at a grocery store because when you stop thinking of food as a gift, you don't have responsibilities," he said.

Sharing is another important aspect in the spirituality of eating. Eating is our way into membership with each other. Sharing meals is the way we move intimately into the life of the world around us.

"My guess is that if I asked you to think in your own life what have been the really memorable, happiest occasions, I'm going to bet that most of them involve food. Food isn't simply fuel. Food is fellowship," he said.

Wirzba's grandmother enjoyed cooking for others. If guests in her house did not eat the meals she prepared, she cried. She wasn't giving them valueless commodities. Rather, she prepared the food to show others that she cared for them, and wanted them to thrive. To reject her food was a rejection of her personally.

Wirzba said God created the world to taste good because he loves us.

"Think of food as fellowship, and think of food as God's love made delectable. Then you will begin to see why something like the sharing of food is not just a good idea, but is actually essential to the full flourishing of human life," he said.


The desire to have food inexpensively and conveniently means agricultural systems that brutalize animals, erode the soil, deplete our waters, exploit workers to the point of slavery and douse our fields with poisons.

Given these facts, why should we say Grace before a meal?

Moreover, today's agriculture is largely anonymous. Most people don't know where the food they are eating came from or how it was produced. They don't know if the workers were respected or whether the soil was preserved or the animals hurt.

"So how can you begin to say 'thank you' over something you have no idea about? What I'm suggesting to you is that giving thanks is a revolutionary act," said Wirzba.

"If you can say 'amen' before you eat, it means that you might have to start asking some questions about where your food is coming from. Maybe when you start asking those questions, you will change what you consume."